My younger friend (!) turns 49 this week so has been ribbed mercilessly by me about how close to a half century she is. The irony isn’t lost on me that I’ve already passed that magnificent marker of when life does truly begin.
We seem to have got into a bit of a tradition of celebrating our birthdays with a Bangkok staycation; this year was no exception. After supposedly just meeting for coffee, I surprised her with a home-from-home night at the Sheraton Grande. The treats included eating ourselves silly at Mrs Balbir’s Indian restaurant, enjoying a cake sent up to the hotel room (they seem to recognize the annual event!), amusingly decorated with a Happy ‘Belated’ Birthday decoration (it’s actually three days before the event!), the metaphorical opening of small gifts (I didn’t use wrapping paper this year in a quest to care for the planet – though I’m not sure if wrapping paper matters anymore or if it is all about plastic reduction), a pedicure, a jaunt to Rivercity Bangkok to see the ‘From Monet to Kandinsky’ exhibition’, which was brilliant if you are local and haven’t seen it, and finally a trip to listen to ‘Pictures at An Exhibition’ by the Thai Philharmonic orchestra, which was also fantastic. (More culture in a day than I usually experience in six months!)
I should, just perhaps add, in case you are thinking that all I do in Bangkok is live the life of riley, the treats were all to be squeezed into 24 hours before I dutifully return to the homestead (well Thana City condo) to support Betsy in her final few days of exam revision (should I mention that all this support actually consisted of was making cups of Robinson’s orange and serving up more helpings of Hob Nobs than is healthy for anyone!)
Anyway, I am pretty secure in the knowledge that ‘younger’ friend, Rachel has had a lovely time, at least she told me she did - MANY times! We do all enjoy treats at any age – I guess it shows that you are cared for. What is interesting to contemplate is the age you reach when giving treats suddenly provides as much if more pleasure than receiving them, and what the motivation behind that is. Thinking back to my ‘small kindnesses’ post in April, I guess I’m back to that idea that we all, at least most of us, are ultimately selfish beings and when apparently ‘giving’ we are actually ‘taking’, thus any generosity of action is inherently self-gratification as much as anything else. Perhaps, as adults, we just hide our selfishness better than young kids. They are still being honest and true to themselves when they only dole out party bags at ‘mum’s request, when it is the tearing open of their own birthday presents that they are in fact desperate to do!
I am now rolling my own eyes at myself at how I’ve managed to turn treating a friend into a treatise on being selfish. Is the masquerading of selfish actions as generous ones one of the life skills we give our children? What am I like? Don’t answer. Anyway, back to revision… Though, having said that Betsy seems a bit exhausted with all her ESS and Spanish learning so it’s maybe time to suggest to the family that we pop to ‘Terminal Bike Cafe’ a little eatery around the corner for some coffee and cake. See how generous and thoughtful I am ...!
My daughter has her first IB English exam today so understandably I feel a bit frazzled. My parting advice wasn't the best. I told her if she didn't understand the commentary then to write on the prose, or vice versa. She asked what should she do if she didn't understand either. I said that if she was in that situation then she'd 'had it' or words to that effect. She looked shocked and, on reflection, the advice perhaps wasn’t so helpful! I'm afeared that was pehaps a little too honest as far as reflections go!
Believe it or not I did used to teach IB English, back in the day. Those were the 'good old days' when I didn't use cliches and I could make a thousand snap decisions in the 'blink of an eye'. I'm sure I had better advice for the students I taught. Putting that aside, this sense of being frazzled was exacerbated as I was due at the chiropractors for my third session at 8.00 am and my plan was to drive myself after dropping Mick and Betsy off at school.
I know that doesn't sound such a big deal, but driving in Bangkok isn't something I've done much of, or I'm very confident in doing. In addition it was raining, the Thai schools holidays have ended so the traffic was extra bad and I have no sense of direction. (I really don't and when I'm in the UK I still get lost visiting my brother, who has lived in the same village, close by my own, for about 20 years.) Anyway, embracing my fifty-something risk taker persona, (did I tell you I drive a Porsche in the UK?!) I set off to the chiropractor with more than an hour to spare. I had a full tank of diesel, plenty of podcasts to listen to and figured I couldn't go too far wrong. Famous last words..
Firstly, Mr Satnav, took me a different way to his last week's route - confusing or what? Secondly, I missed the entry onto the highway (I think) and had a lot of 'recalculating' background noise to listen to. Thirdly, Mr Satnav suddenly increased my journey time by about twenty minutes just because of my small error (not friendly), fourthly, he took me straight into VERY busy traffic and then decided to stop speaking to me for far too long, (a sulky Mr Sat Nav is not helpful) fifthly, when I finally reached Soi 79, Mr Satnav (note he not I, despite the large sign saying Soi 79) overshot the entrance. Consequently, I had to swerve left in order to park a little further up in Tops supermarket carpark which caused some pipping (unecessary in my opinion), amongst usually tolerant Bangkok drivers (I can only assume they were fed up with the rainy morning. Having parked the car I was able to take a motorbike taxi back to the chiropractor. (Great use of my initiative me thinks, if not so great for my back and not at all good for my safety and desire for a long life!) However, albeit twenty minutes late, I had made it. A small victory. (Feel free to stop reading now and skip to the end, more of the same coming up.)
I've resisted going on about my bad back, it's a story in itself, but an hour later and 2,200 baht lighter I was heading back to the car. It was now raining, I no longer had aforementioned Mr Satnav, but I did have Ms Googlemaps on my phone so I was able to find my way out of the mooban (housing estate) on foot. Previously used motorbike taxi had now done a sensible runner, visitor's pass was lost for some minutes, whilst I rummaged through my bag under the beady eye of the mooban's guard, but eventually I made it back to Tops. Another small victory, well arguably a big one as Saint Mick would have had something to say if I'd lost the car. (Don't worry I'm not as daft as I look and had taken a photo of the parking centre it was in and the floor it was on - smart eh!)
One Starbucks latte and cinnamon bun later, (guilty treat - ok almost daily guilty treat) I explored a new TOPS supermarket (new adventure). No dried yeast and no Robinsons' squash, but I still managed to load up with carriers, (I’d forgotten my bags for life -again) and get suitably disorientated in the shopping centre whilst trying to get the receipt stamped for my car. I'll by-pass how the escalators were broken and my arms were extended to gibbon proportions. Also, it would be very impolite to mention how I was in grave danger of wee-ing myself as I'd not gone before leaving the chiropractors. Eventually, car relocated and having driven round and round unable to find the 'down' bit, of the multi-storey carpark (I didn't really get to the top of the car park before I realised that the up and down bit was one and the same) and almost getting arrested for not paying the 20 baht car parking fee. (If I had to pay why did I need to get my receipt stamped?) I made it back home. EUREKA! A BIG VICTORY I'd say.
Driving around Bangkok is only something I've started doing since finishing work and I find it a bit scary to be truthful, but I am not going to give up. When I was working full time my journeys were limited to school, the supermarket, or if I was really living on the edge a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Now, I've thrown hospitals and chiropraactos into the mix there is no stopping me!! Today every step of the way, I did something wrong, and what I achieved was no more than 'normal' people do with their eyes closed (metaphorically obviously..) However, as I now sit in my front room worrying, only a little bit, about my daughter's exam, I'm feeling, just for a minute, fairly frazzle free and quietly pleased that I didn't just jump in a taxi to get to the chiropractors. I'm definitely chalking up this mindset as another small victory. In fact it is one that I would celebrate with a chocolate digestive, if I hadn't forgotten to buy them whilst in the supermarket! Room for improvement!
I was heading down to my car in the lift today from our apartment, and a baby, (maybe about 8 months), with an entourage of adoring family members, was also in the lift. S/he however ignored them and stared at me with the piercing stare and undivided attention that only a baby can give. It made me smile and was good for the soul. I continued on my way (to the shops, as it happens) and when I arrived saw some other little kids laughing and shouting as they played in some artificial sprinklers. Also good for the soul. As I wandered round, killing time really, whilst Betsy revised with her friends in a coffee shop, (that's her story and she's sticking to it!) I thought about other things that make me happy. In no particular order here's my list. What's on yours?
I read Ian McEwan's Children Act back in 2014 and wasn't disappointed. At the time I posted a review on goodreads.com, as I am want do. If you are not a member of goodreads I can't recommend it enough for keeping up with what's current, getting book reading suggestions and for using as easy way to keep check of your own reading (required if, like me, you forget everything!)
The central question in The Children Act is whether a 17 year old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion, which is likely to save his life, but goes against his Jehova's Witnesses' parents' (how do you correctly punctuate that?) beliefs. I revisited the story and the question a couple of weeks ago when I watched the movie (on a flight back to Bangkok). Fiona, the powerful judge in the story, was played brilliantly by Emma Thompson alongside a fantastic cast. The topic is weighty - it doesn't get much bigger than choosing life or death and had me asking all sorts of questions to which I don't have any answers!
It got me thinking about whether we actually 'own' our children. If the answer is yes then do we stop owning them when they turn 18? Or does it end when we stop subsidising our kids financially? Perhaps it never ends and ultimately the tables just turn and we own our parents - there's a thought to make the oldies break out in a cold sweat. No wonder there are often fireworks in families
My first response to the question is that of course we don't own our children, but when you think about it, so much of parenting does suggest a level of belonging (positive) and being controlled (negative). Perhaps we can view ourselves as benevolent dictators! Right now, for example, Betsy is sitting with her Maths tutor, the marvellous John of www.transum.org. She didn't choose to spend her Sunday mornings doing Maths, but is a willing participant in this transaction. Does this make her my 'owned product' being forced to achieve my aim of attaining a certain level of Maths competence, or is she an independent being making free choices about preparing for her future? (IB Maths exam tomorrow - yikes!) My other daughter, Annie, will hopefully be in the Science Library soon, at UCL revising for her Ecology exam. She did choose to study Ecology as part of her degree, and she did choose her University, but she was directed, encouraged and equipped to get there, so how much of that is actually free choice and how much is our 'owning' her life direction and choices? How much of parenting is a transaction and negotiation, and how much is non-negotiatable and led? Have our girls complied to our overview of where they are heading or have they chosen it, trusing our guidance and leadership? You can take it further; have we, as parents, complied passively or unthinkingly to social expectations or have we actively chosen them?
I guess you could say in my own life it doesn't actually matter, as the kids seem to be heading in a positive direction. To go really 'meta' for minute though, what if we were discussing the acceptance of an indefensible social or political system, that we believed in and were directing our children towards - then what? It makes you think how strong you have to be to really make independent choice and reject the factors influencing who we are.
Anyway enough meandering thoughts on a Sunday morning. The Children Act is a fab book. An aside, it is also a marvellous exploration of the deteroration of a long-standing middle class marriage, arguably due to wifely neglect (rolled-eyes, as of course the wife gets the blame!) If you haven't read it, definitely do. It's a short read but a powerful one. Then afterwards why not treat yourself to the film - always worth seeing Emma Thompson in action! (Hope she didn't have to make too many carbon-rich flights of course - tongue firmyl in cheek here!)
It's weird how reading books opens up a whole train of thought and associations that don't tie directly to the plot of the book being read but nevertheless encourage reflection. I was thinking the other day how important relationships that we make during our teens and at universities can be. The impact of either positive or negative friendships we make can resonate years later. Who we are in our late teens, who influences us and why and how, massively impacts who we become.
That's generally what was on my mind as I started reading Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' and the things it made me ponder on during and after were loosely linked to that. The book made me reflect on how little I actually know about my kids' friendships for example. What I do know, shows itself mainly in a fierce desire to protect them, which can be harmful to their personal and social development. It led me to think about friendships that I've had in the past that perhaps went a bit sour and now, for a whole host of reasons, are too late to fix. The book also had me feeling gratitude for connections I've retained and new ones I've formed. For example, I've been privileged to be back in touch with the mum of a friend who passed away when we were younger. So, although 'Normal People' wasn't about any of these things it is interesting to consider how literature shapes our thoughts into some kind of coherency. Perhaps all a good book is, is a fancy form of word and thought association!
I do like 'naturalistic' or 'realistic fiction' and 'Normal People' explores family and friendship, looking at how these cannot be separated in the relationships we form. Isn't it strange how there are some things you'd tell your friends that you'd never tell your family, and yet family is often likely to be more permanent than support from friends? Families come with a battery of assumptions and pre-formed views and attitudes about you so you would think they'd know you inside out, YET a friend quite often knows you better, or at least knows the 'current you' better. It's a messy cocktail and one that I find fascinating but don't pretend to begin to understand. For example, I'm likely to see things from my kids' perspectives, and I'm likely to be sympathetic, but I think that can also underestimate my ability to understand that they are complex humans.
In this book the protagonist 'Marianne' has a lot of negative stuff to deal with, and we see how she does and doesn't handle it well. Her family set up is BAD. The boy protagonist though, Connell, has a supportive mum, yet he also struggles to find his place, and is acutely aware of 'self' and lives with a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. The text reminded me what being at university can be like and was a poignant reminder that what twenty year olds go through is no less signficant or important than any other experience. I think it is a bit too easy to dismiss student exisential angst as 'just a phase' and dismiss the complexity of emotions that it creates. Perhaps the book made me feel a little bit like I was twenty again. It is not just for millenials!
So as you can see Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' resonated with me. It was a study of 'mankind' that parallels the excellence of Simone De Beauvoir's 'She Came to Stay' or 'The Second Sex'. 'Normal People' is a perfect micro-example of excellent writing that illustrates how good fiction helps us to address the vey fundamentals of who we are, what makes us human and how we interact. It has gone straight into my top ten books and I can't wait to hear what others think of it.